After their successes in the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, it is obvious the Republican Party intends use inflammatory and false depictions of Critical Race Theory as a strategy to frighten white suburban parents and play on latent racial prejudices. We can expect Critical Race Theory to be the boogeyman of the next election cycle. In order to help anti-racists counter this racist propaganda, I’ve prepared this set of answers to the most common questions and accusations around Critical Race Theory.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory is a set of ideas about racism introduced in the 1990s and largely taught and discussed in higher education. It contains the following six tenets:
- Race is a social construct. There are no significant differences -biologically, mentally or intellectually – between people of different skin colors.
- Unfortunately, racism in the United States in normative and continues to be experienced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis.
- Racism is systemic and most US institutions – consciously or unconsciously – still advantage white people over Black and Brown people.
- Black and Brown people are still culturally defined by negative stereotypes.
- All people are part of a multitude of groups and no single identifier can adequately identify them. This is called intersectionality.
- People of color have a unique and important perspective on racism and their voices and opinions should be valued.
Is Critical Race Theory being taught in our schools?
Yes and no.
As a theory, most students will not study Critical Race Theory until they go to college. Like with other complex ideas, students are introduced to its tenets when they are sophisticated enough to understand its implications. We don’t teach kindergarteners the theory of relativity, but we do teach them how to tell time.
The basic tenets of Critical Race Theory can and should be introduced to children in simple terms. For example, elementary children SHOULD be taught that the color of your skin does not make you better or worse than anyone else. High school students SHOULD be taught the history of legal and systemic racial discrimination in America.
In addition, Critical Race Theory is vitally important for educators to understand. Teachers SHOULD be taught Critical Race Theory and it should inform their teaching philosophy and classroom content. Understanding Critical Race Theory will make our schools – which are institutions prone to systemic racism – less racist.
Ironically, the problem in the United States is not that Critical Race Theory has infiltrated our public-school systems. The issue is that it has not.
Is Critical Race Theory or its tenets designed to make white students feel guilty or ashamed?
Like all theories, it is designed to enlighten and expand our understanding of our world. How we feel about specific ideas is more a matter of personality, previous indoctrination, and context. If a white child has been taught that Black people are inferior, learning about the tenets of Critical Race Theory is more likely to make them angry than guilty or ashamed. Their parents will probably want the school to cease teaching these tenets.
However, dealing honestly with issues of racism in the past and present can be very uncomfortable, especially if you are part of the group that has perpetuated this racism. When white children realize that people of their skin color have done horrible things to people of other skins colors, some may feel guilt or shame. These students should be encouraged to take responsibility for how they will think, act and live differently.
What is often ignored in discussions of Critical Race Theory is how children of color might experience its lessons. For them, it can be liberating, validating, and empowering. That the feelings of children of color are seldom considered in debates about Critical Race Theory should be concerning.
Does Critical Race Theory damage Black and Brown children by teaching them that they are oppressed?
It does not need to teach them this. They are already aware. The idea that Black and Brown children must be taught that they live in a prejudiced society is ridiculous.
Indeed, the goal of Critical Race Theory is to help all students better understand the past and present systemic racial disadvantages that Black and Brown students face in our society. For the white child, this is an exercise in enlightenment and empathy. For Black and Brown children, this is validation.
What damages Black and Brown children is ignoring their history, experiences, and frustrations..
Is Critical Race Theory just another name for American history?
American history is a narrative about our nation, informed by documented facts and historic accounts. These facts and accounts are open to various interpretations. For example, the theory of Manifest Destiny was a common and accepted interpretation tool which argued that God had aided white Europeans in subjugating and dominating people of color. The theory of the Lost Cause argued the Civil War was NOT fought over the enslavement of human beings, but over states’ rights and that the South was unjustly treated by the North. These were obviously theories created by white people to interpret history. They have largely been rejected by historians and ethicists.
Critical Race Theory is another interpretation tool. It is a theory devised by Black people to interpret history. It is an important corrective to previous narratives that largely ignored the perspectives of minorities.
A good teacher will ask their students to both understand the facts of history and critically examine the various ways these facts could be interpreted.
Are Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism the same?
Critical Race Theory is a way to understand race and racism in the United States. It has been around since the 1990s. Anti-Racism is a newer idea which suggests that there can be no position of neutrality around issues of racism. People are either racist or anti-racist. This challenges the common white idea that people can be “not racist.” This implies all people in our society have some responsibility to address and end racism.
If Critical Race Theory has been around since the 1990s, why is it suddenly so controversial?
In 2020, Christopher Rufo, by his own admission, identified Critical Race Theory as “the perfect villain” for a crusade against what he considered progressive efforts to address racism. He said of Critical Race Theory, “ Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”
In 2021, Rufo was the architect of a highly successful campaign to paint all attempts to address systemic racism, police profiling, affirmative action, and diversity training as Critical Race Theory. One of the key elements of this campaign was to paint educators as perpetuators of “white shaming.” In this narrative, educators are trying to make white student feel guilty for being white.
Rufo also played a significant role in the sudden emergence of state legislation banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory. He helped create the template Republican politicians quickly introduced in many statehouses. As seen in the recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, politicians have realized that manufacturing fears about “white shaming” in schools is an effective means of regaining white suburban votes.
Before 2020, most white American had neither heard of nor cared about Critical Race Theory. Today, most white Americans, including the legislators who passed the new laws, still cannot define Critical Race Theory. Ironically, Critical Race Theory has become a boogeyman to frighten white parents into opposing efforts for truth telling, critical historic reflection and the teaching of anti-racism.
Is Critical Race Theory Marxist or Anti-American?
Yes and no.
Most of those accusing Critical Race Theory of being Marxist are using this term for further fearmongering. There are many kinds of socialism. Bernie Sanders is a socialist and received millions of votes in the Democratic primaries. Democratic socialism is a highly successful form of government in many places in the world. Calling something Marxist is a common Republican trick and designed to suggest something sinister.
Critical Race Theory does accept some of the insights of Marxist thought, especially those critiques of class, capitalism, and systemic oppression. However, it is not supportive of authoritarian communism. Indeed, Critical Race Theory is built on the assumption that minorities can use democratic mechanisms to change society for the better.
As to being Anti-American, Critical Race Theory is only anti-American when America ignores or abandons its commitment to its founding principles of liberty and justice for all.
Is Critical Race Theory opposed to the Civil Rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and others?
Indeed, if you read the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, toward the end of his life, you will discover many of the same themes addressed by Critical Race Theory. The Civil Rights Movement successfully challenged legally mandated discrimination. However, King and others soon realized there needed to be systemic change. King also saw direct connections between racial discrimination and the excesses of capitalism.
Ironically, many of those who try to pit Critical Race Theory against King and the Civil Rights Movement forget that King was often accused of being both a communist and Marxist by the white establishment of his day.
Critical Race Theory does not believe the Civil Rights Movement was a failure. They simply understand it as a beginning step in addressing racism in America.
What should I do when someone says something untrue or negative about Critical Race Theory being taught in school?
Ask them to define Critical Race Theory.
If they cannot define it, explain it to them.
If they define in incorrectly, correct them.
If they understand it and oppose it, agree to disagree.
Ask them to explain how they think the facts of America’s racial history should be taught.
If they downplay the ravages of enslavement and discrimination, ask why.
If they offer good approaches, agree with them. Explain that they have the same goal as Critical Race Theory.
If they claim Critical Race Theory is about shaming white children…
Ask them if they or their children ever felt shamed by the lessons of American history.
If so, ask them to explain why.
If a teacher intentionally made them feel this way, admit this was wrong.
If not, ask them to explain why they felt that way.
Talk about your own feelings of deep sadness about how people of color have been treated historically and your desire to see our country do better in the future. Explain that understanding that history is important for moving forward. Ask them how they think children of color would feel if we ignored that history.